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A summer reflection on the call of the Arctic

By Gerald Schmitz

09/14/2016

Gerald Schmitz

The Arctic seems to forever cast a spell over man’s imagination . . . A corner of the world of ice-encrusted shores and unbounded frozen tundra, of endless days or continuous nights.
A land that is as unpredictable and dangerous as it is alluring and wondrously beautiful.

— Alexis Troubetzkoy, Arctic Obsession: The Lure of the Far North

Canada is second only to Russia in its claims to the Arctic. Indeed much of Canada’s total territory and coastline lies north of the Arctic Circle even if this huge expanse has a tiny population.

Canadians take pride in the mythology of the “True North.” Our political leaders have proclaimed northern visions and made ritual assertions of “Arctic sovereignty.” (An excellent guide to the issues at stake is Michael Byers, Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North.) Former prime minister Stephen Harper made a point of annual summer photo-op visits to Arctic locations. The Justin Trudeau government has made tackling climate change a policy priority, and it is in the high latitudes that its effects are most pronounced. Canadians living in the Arctic, notably the indigenous peoples who have made it their home for millennia, have an especially powerful case for demanding climate action. (See Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet.)

And yet very few Canadians have ever been anywhere north of the Arctic Circle. No doubt the remoteness and the expense of getting there are a factor. However, it seems that rather few Canadians have a desire to experience the Arctic. No one will question a southern escape during our winters, whereas going to the frozen north during our summers will strike many as an odd choice. Having been on three High Arctic summer voyages (and one to the Antarctic), my sense is that even when these take place primarily within the Canadian Arctic, Canadian participants are distinctly in the minority. Most of us seem to take for granted what others find so rare and special.

I admit to being fascinated by the tales of polar exploration since I was a kid. And I’ve had professional opportunities to visit Arctic communities, notably in 1996 when the House of Commons foreign affairs committee undertook a major study of Canada’s role in circumpolar co-operation. But the summer trips alluded to above have been on my personal initiative.

A decade ago I went on my first marine voyage through the Northwest Passage (stopping at graves from Franklin’s ill-fated expedition on Beechey Island), sailing up to Grise Fjord, Canada’s most northerly community on Ellesmere island, then across Baffin Bay and past Hans Island (disputed with Denmark) to Qaanaaq, Greenland’s most northerly town. We sailed down the Greenland coast as far as Upernavik then crossed back over to explore the eastern coast of Baffin island — with stops at Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Oiklqtarjuak (Broughton Island), and Pangniqtuuq (Pangnirtung) — ending in Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit.

Our ship, the MS Explorer, hit an iceberg off the Antarctic coast the next year and sank! Fortunately some 100 passengers and crew were safely evacuated and subsequently picked up by a Norwegian ship after drifting for five hours in lifeboats. There’s a good reason on-board safety drills are mandatory.

In 2010, author Kathleen Winter went on a voyage similar to mine of 2006, though beginning further south in Greenland at Kangerlussuaq and ending in the Northwest Passage. Her trip was also accompanied by noted Inuit cultural activist Aaju Peter, filmmaker John Houston (son of James Houston, who brought Inuit art to global attention), as well as musician Nathan Rogers, son of the late Stan Rogers who wrote the iconic ballad about the passage. Winter wrote about it in an evocative memoir, Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage. When her ship ran aground in Coronation Gulf, passengers and crew were stranded for three days until they could be transferred to the Coast Guard vessel Amundsen and ferried to Kugluktuk (Coppermine). It’s a reminder of the potential perils of these waterways which, as the polar ice continues to thin and retreat in summer, will be increasingly open to commercial shipping and larger cruise ships. (An article about giant luxury liners plying the Arctic in the Aug. 1 issue of Maclean’s was headlined “The One Per Cent Are Coming to Canada’s North.”)

I certainly have no interest in that kind of deluxe tourism. But this July I decided it was time to undertake another much smaller-scale and more adventurous Arctic expedition, this time to the remote archipelagos thousands of kilometres above Scandinavia. It was with Quark Expeditions on the “Sea Adventurer” and originally the plan was to explore both Norway’s Svalbard islands and those of Russia’s Franz Josef Land. When Russian permission was not received, that was changed to an in-depth circumnavigation of Svalbard plus a thrust further north to the edge of the polar icepack. It probably turned out for the best as, with the benefit of mostly ideal conditions, we were able to do more and longer landings in spectacular coastal settings that offered a great range of Arctic flora and fauna. Zodiacs (small motorized rubber dinghies) transported us to and from the ship, and some also did sea kayaking.

We boarded the Sea Adventurer on July 5 at Longyearben on the main island of Spitzbergen after waiting hours for an enormous cruise ship (3,000 passengers to our 69) to vacate the pier. This isolated community of 2,000 souls is one of only two in Svalbard, which has no historical indigenous population (it was discovered by Willem Barents in 1596), and at latitude 78°13’N lies over 2,000 kilometres from Oslo by air. The town was founded by an American coal miner. Some mining continues. There is a church, a university college, and an outstanding museum. Of planetary significance is the Global Seed Vault which, constructed to withstand any potential disaster, holds some three million known crop varieties.

Our voyage under 24-hour sun took us to one stunning landscape after another of mountain peaks and great glaciers as well as sites of historical relics — from mining, whaling, even ill-fated attempts to reach the North Pole by hot-air balloon. Everyone was excited to see polar bears, of course. The first two on land were quite thin, lone females searching out birds’ nests for meagre sustenance. The next two were big robust males on the pack ice, one still feasting on a seal. Awesome. On that banner day, when we reached a furthest north of 81°22,’ we also had the rare delight of watching a pair of blue whales — earth’s largest creatures — around our ship. The furthest northeast we ventured was to Kvitøya (“White Island”) which is almost completely covered by a permanent icecap.

Overall we would sight some 25 bears, including several mothers with cubs, Arctic foxes, groups of reindeer with calves, bearded seals on ice floes, huge walrus haul-outs and females swimming with calves. The birdlife was extraordinary — brightly beaked puffins, rock ptarmigan, predatory Glaucous gulls, the steep nesting cliffs of kittiwakes, little auks, and guillemots in the hundreds of thousands, and more. The brief summer is bursting with life and colour; the boggy tundra carpeted with all manner of flowering vegetation — moss campion, mountain avens, purple and yellow saxifrage, Arctic poppy, to name but a few. We were issued expedition parkas (and boots) but had days so sunny and mild (up to 15C) that a long hike could be done in little more than a T-shirt. Even on days with fog or raw winds, the atmosphere was never less than captivating.

Every day was a learning experience that included daily recaps of everything seen and a range of lectures on Arctic subjects. Among our excellent guides, operating zodiacs, some bearing firearms as a precaution against bears, were experts in marine biology, ornithology, geology, history and photography.

And as I have found on previous voyages, one meets really interesting fellow passengers. I especially enjoyed my conversations with Steven and Jane Bahls of Rock Island, Illinois, where Steven is president of Augustana College. Jane has written a superb blog of the trip which can be accessed at: http://www.janebahls.tumblr.com/. I have also posted an album of photos to my website at: https://gerrystakes.shutterfly.com/pictures/5358 .

I was one of only three Canadians on this northern voyage, not unusual as I’ve observed earlier.

Given our country’s Arctic reach and responsibilities, I hope that in coming years more Canadians will answer its call and be inspired by the wonders of God’s creation.